Last night I went to a cocktail party in my building where one of the other guests had a little more wine than he probably should have. He’s a big name attorney at one of the major law firms in town, very savvy about how the world really works in ways that I’ll never be.
Of course we were talking about what I’m always talking about these days: commercial real estate and politics, especially as it relates to Western & Southern.
“Wait til they tear down the old headquarters and you see the deal they get on their new building,” he said. “Queen City Square was nothing.” Part of that circle of insiders who finds out about stuff before the rest of us, he’s seen details. And when I told him that’s what I was trying to stop, the reason I’m spending so much time at City Hall these days, getting up before dawn every day to analyze the paper trail left in our public records – so that citizens can have a say in the deal before Council votes, he laughed. “You go ahead and try, but you won’t be able to stop them.”
That’s what everybody says. Western & Southern is too strong, political alliances at the city, county and state levels long-established. They’ve got too much money. And nobody ever wants their name associated with anything they tell me because everybody with any sense is scared to death of repercussions from the cabal that has pulled the decision-making strings behind the scenes since the Seventies. I’m not afraid of much in life, but even I back away from sharing everything I’ve heard. I don’t know what they could do to me since I’m not in business and I never want to run for public office – but I’d prefer not to find out.
These giant real estate deals take years and years to put together. By the time Council votes, the outcome is a foregone conclusion forged by private interests in those infamous back rooms. As far as development is concerned, there is no real democratic process, just the theater of one. In fact, the system is set-up to make sure voters can’t interfere. It’s been this way for as long as anybody can remember and our elected officials work with the status quo or they don’t survive.
And yet. . . .
I won’t stop. I can’t. This is wrong. We all know it’s wrong.
I believe the balance of power in this city can be changed. I believe real democracy – the idea that every voice in a community is of equal importance, that we make our best decisions together through the messy process of public conversations about complicated issues that have no easy answers – real democracy is worth fighting for and even though I wish City Council could do this for us – they can’t. This power is so entrenched that the will to change is going to have to come from a groundswell of Cincinnatians, people who usually don’t agree on much – Westsiders and Eastsiders, urbanists and neighborhood advocates, gay and straight, streetcar supporters and streetcar haters, black people and white people, rich and poor – all of us joining together because in our hearts we know that democracy is precious and we can’t afford to pretend anymore.
Tomorrow I am starting to interview attorneys. If another big real estate deal goes through on an Emergency basis without public input, Cincinnati has to be prepared to take legal action. I don’t have the financial resources to fight the city’s legal department alone, so I’m asking everybody to get out your empty pickle jars and start saving pocket change. If we have to buy back our democracy, so be it.
In my lifetime, I never thought I’d see the Berlin Wall come down, apartheid end, or gay friends getting married. But all those things have happened. And they happened because normal people like us stopped being afraid, stood up together and demanded change.